In talking about the need for a well-rounded education, Secretary Duncan has consistently invoked the importance of keeping arts in the mix. Over the past three years, researchers at Northwestern University have teamed up with the Harmony Project, a nonprofit instrumental music program based in Los Angeles, as well as public charter schools in Chicago, to investigate just how important the arts are to learning.
Harmony Project works with students, such as Fatima Salcido, who enrolled in group violin classes during middle school. Since then, she has been a high achiever. Through diligent practice, Fatima earned her way into private lessons and membership in the Hollywood Youth Orchestra, one of Harmony Project’s most elite ensembles. In addition to these activities, during her last two years of high school Fatima gave weekly private violin instruction to a less-advanced musician as a volunteer peer mentor. Fatima has gone on to earn a full four-year scholarship to Tulane University, where she is currently a neuroscience pre-med major and a member of the Tulane University orchestra.
Looking at Fatima’s success and that of others in Harmony Project, Northwestern is conducting a longitudinal study that investigates the impact of music education on child and adolescent brain development. In particular, neuroscientists are evaluating how music education affects learning skills, communication abilities, and biological development in underserved, grade-school-aged children participating in Harmony’s mentoring program.
On July 25, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. EDT, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts will host a webinar focused on this research. The NEA’s Federal Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development has been working since 2011 to encourage more and better research on how the arts can help people reach their full potential in all stages of life. Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles professor of neurobiology and physiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, is the principal investigator. One research question she is trying to answer is “Can music offset the ever-widening academic gap between rich and poor?” Preliminary results of her research suggest that it can.
According to Kraus, many scientists have written about a link between music and reading. In learning to read, the learner must have an auditory representation of a sound if it is going to be linked to a visual image (letter).
The research scientists in this study have measured the nervous system’s activity in response to sound. When people hear sounds, neurons fire, and those neural events can be measured. This measurement shows that musical training has a positive effect on biological processes important for auditory learning, memory, and hearing speech in challenging listening situations (e.g., noisy classrooms), which appear to translate into better language learning results. Northwestern’s findings have the potential to provide valuable information for educators, clinicians and policymakers interested in the potential of music to nurture academic success, particularly among students from low-income homes.
“We’ve already discovered that the biological processes that underlie reading skills are the very processes that are strengthened by music training,” Kraus says. “What we don’t know—and what this research in schools is trying to assess—is whether musical education, delivered in school-based group settings, will have the same impact on these fundamental biological processes.” The Webinar on July 25, will further illustrate the research and its implications.
Another example from the Harmony Project illustrates why scientists are curious about this project’s ability to affect a student’s academic ability. Christian Martinez enrolled in Harmony Project in elementary school. He was an ESL student until he reached 6th grade, and by the second half of 6th grade Christian was moved to a regular English class. By 7th grade, Christian was placed in an honors English class. Christian explains that he moved up in his English classes by applying the same lessons he learned studying violin. Christian will be a junior in high school this fall. Currently, Christian earns (dual enrollment) college credit from Los Angeles City College for his participation as a principal player in an intermediate-level Harmony Project orchestra and as a section member of an elite Harmony Project orchestra.
To register for the webinar, visit http://artsgov.adobeconnect.com/artsdevjuly2013-webinar/event/event_info.html.
Tony Fowler, Interagency Coordination in the Office of Communications and Outreach